On August 8, Simon Critchley wrote an editorial in the New York Times called “The Rigor of Love,” arguing that given Kierkegaard’s concepts of faith and love, those without faith may actually be more faithful than those with faith. In a nutshell, I think Critchley gets the spirit of Kierkegaard while missing on the particulars. Given his particular understanding of the Kierkegaardian concepts of faith and love, he comes to a reasonable conclusion, but the problem is that he get those concepts wrong.
For Kierkegaard, the concept of love is intimately attached to God. Kierkegaard attaches love of neighbor as an expression of love for God. There is a sense that every relationship you have with others becomes an expression of your relationship with God. Additionally, it is important that the command is not to love everyone, but to love your neighbor. For Kierkegaard, that means that you are to love the person in front of you, not with a preferential love, but with an agape love that puts the concern for the genuine good of the other as the most important focus. You are not to act with any concern of what you might receive from the other, but solely for the other, again, as an expression of your love for God. Because of the intimate connection between neighbor love and love for God, the idea that someone who is not striving to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength could love one’s neighbor with the commanded neighbor love would be absurd for Kierkegaard. It may be possible to love with another kind of love, but Kierkegaard calls those kinds of love preferential love, not neighbor love.
Here is one thought experiment that I gave in my thesis of the application of this love. Imagine you’re on a boat with your wife. Some correctly convicted death row inmates are also on the boat, en route to their execution the next day. The boat starts to sink and is full of life boats but each life boat only holds two people. (Obviously I’m a philosopher as the qualifications have started to get a bit ridiculous.) You are able to get one of the life boats. According to Kierkegaard, your neighbor is the person closest to you. So you are to help the first person that you come to, even if it is one of those convicted killers and you know that your wife is out there, for that killer is your neighbor. (Now, of course, I put a footnote that if I kept paddling through the people and came upon my wife, I could give her my spot on the lifeboat and she could push the criminal out to give me that spot.) This love is blind in one sense, as it does not care who is in front of you, but on the other hand, it is anything but blind, for you are to help that particular person in the way that they need to be helped, which cannot be generalized beyond the term “love”.
I think Critchley misses some of the nuances of this aspect of Kierkegaard. The thing that messes up Critchley more is his understanding of faith. He gets some of the nuances, but makes the mistake of explaining faith in Kierkegaard’s work on love. By working with an incomplete understanding, he allows faith to be something that it is not. For Kierkegaard, faith is about the relationship between the infinite Creator and finite man. It does demand everything, but can never be met. It is a relationship of like and unlike, as Critchley explains. However, the Incarnation is the key for Kierkegaard, for it is in the Incarnation that the king became a beggar in order to truly win the heart of the peasant girl, as he explains in The Sickness Unto Death. Just as the king could win the girl’s respect or fear if he presented himself in his full glory, or she could have been with him in order to experience the benefits of being queen, had God done anything but became one of us, there was no guarantee of our love, although He certainly could have gotten our respect, fear, or played to our desire for rewards. By becoming man, God, in a sense, leveled the playing field, so that we could enter into a genuine loving relationship with Him. Without the Incarnation, the door is opened for Critchley’s ideas.
Critchley did do a good job of emphasizing the void of denominations or creed for Kierkegaard’s idea of faith. For Kierkegaard, faith is deeply personal. In Fear and Trembling, we’re given an attempt at an explanation of faith from someone who does not have faith. From his perspective, faith looks irrational. Faith looks like a leap. Faith looks like uncertainty. However, faith is about the relationship between the individual and God. Whereas the ethical form of life is about being able to justify your actions to the community, faith is unexplainable. When God tells you something, it cannot be explained to anyone else, for faith is about the individual’s relationship with God. In fact, since language is an expression of the ethical life, that is, the need to justify and communicate, faith cannot be accurately expressed in language. When God tells you something, the only person before whom you need to justify your actions is the one who commanded you to act. Because the person of faith is only concerned about his relationship with God, he will sometimes do things that are considered unethical by the community in which he lives. To the observer of this person, it may look like he is utterly unconcerned with ethics, and is an aesthete, a person only concerned with his own pleasures. This observation would be incorrect, but it is understandable how one would come to this observation, because there is nothing observable that would lead one to think otherwise for it is all about the individual’s relationship to God.
I think it is here where we can see how Critchley comes to his incorrect observation. The person without faith may actually look incredibly similar to Kierkegaard’s person of faith. Based on this observation, he wants to basically equate the two, but he misses the fact that the person of faith acts as he does because of his relationship with God. This intimate, personal relationship changes everything, although it may not look that way to an outside observer, especially one without faith.
I think Critchley identifies an important connection that should be recognized more often than it is, as we often strive to live our faith in a way that dismisses the fact it is a relationship that will create unease and uncertainty, which creates a disconnect between those with faith and those without faith when in reality, there is much more shared than either side typically wants to admit. Now there is still a fundamental difference between the two, but while the experiences are similar, our experience of uncertainty has meaning and significance to it that cannot be found otherwise.
While Kierkegaard does a wonderful job of emphasizing the need for the individual to have a relationship with God, I think he misses the role of true Christian community in his thought. Kierkegaard tends to see the Church as an expression of the ethical life rather than the life of faith, and given the lack of disconnect between church and state, in Denmark it was. However, the Church does not have to be connected to the state, and therefore, true Christian community can play an important role for the person of faith. Following Wittgenstein, a group of persons of faith can all participate in the same language game that allows them to express meaning to those who have comparable relationships, although each individual has his/her own unique relationship with God. This language game will not make sense to anyone outside of faith, but to those with true faith, it will make perfect sense. While Wittgenstein has other interesting thoughts that would explain how people of faith can convey the meaning of that faith to those outside faith, that will be for another time, as that is a huge tangent that is a paper in itself (that I have basically written a couple years ago).
Ultimately, Critchley looks at Kierkegaard’s work and sees that people without faith look to demonstrate the characteristics of faith better than faithful people today. However, he makes the mistake in taking this observation to mean that the people without faith have faith more than those with faith. It follows from Kierkegaard that the faithless might look very much like the faithful. But to equate the two is a mistake. Instead, as Christians, we should look to demonstrate that we share in the human experience of uncertainty just like everyone. The difference is that our uncertainty is a relational uncertainty rather than an absolute uncertainty.